Skip to main content

The Florida campaign to reform towing and salvage practices is pretty nasty in a way that only a personal grudge can be. Rarely does a consumer cause have the trappings of an industry lobbying campaign. Using newspaper advertisements, a dedicated website and social media, Stop Sea Piracy is pleading its case by accusing TowBoatUS and SeaTow of criminal behavior.

That’s right. Pirates were criminals, so when you accuse marine salvors of piracy, you’re saying they are crooks. The above propaganda image from Stop Sea Piracy sets the tone.

In fact, none of the practices decried by Stop Sea Piracy are illegal; they are long-settled in maritime law, which is not to say reform is not needed. Maybe it is. (Read our previous story on the issue.)

Eric Hull of Brandon, Florida, certainly thinks so. He’s a tournament billfish fisherman with a slick center console and a guy you don’t want to piss off. Here’s Hull’s story about his encounter with a "sea pirate," as reported on the Capitolist news site under the headline "Forget the Somali Coast–Florida might be the sea piracy capital of the world"

Hull’s fishing boat was en route to Key West when the captain noticed water from bait storage areas had leaked into the craft’s interior. He arranged to meet SeaTow in a nearby port, and within 10 minutes of pulling the fishing boat alongside the SeaTow boat, the water was pumped out.

Subsequently, the SeaTow worker presented a salvage form to the captain. The captain called Hull, who in turn called his insurance agent, who told him to have the captain sign the form. Some days after his initial call to SeaTow, Hull got the $30,000 bill.

After some wrangling between SeaTow and his insurance company, which would also eventually involve the boat manufacturer, the charge to Hull was reduced to $13,000. Hull conceded the fine print in his membership agreement indicates that significant service charges can be assessed. But he contended that his boat was in no immediate danger — his captain had, in fact, piloted the boat to the SeaTow boat — so there was no need for handling it as a salvage operation.

“If he (the SeaTow representative) had told my captain it was going to cost $30,000,” the captain could have made other arrangements for addressing the problem, Hull contended.

The Florida legislation does not address how much salvors such as SeaTow and TowBoatUS can charge. It requires that salvors inform customers orally and in writing when work will go beyond basic services covered in their membership towing insurance contracts.

House Bill 469 and Senate Bill 664 specifically require that salvors tell customers that “salvage work allows the salvor to present you, or your insurance company, with a bill for the charges at a later date. The salvor shall calculate the charges according to federal salvage law...The charges could amount to as much as the entire value of your vessel and its contents.”

Hull appears to be the impetus and inspiration for the proposed new law. Hull launched a website and solicited other boaters to submit their horror stories. He appears to have received only one submission so far. The question is not whether charging $30,000 was a piratical act because it may well have been. The question is: How common are these types of practices and do one or two instances merit all the hype?

BoatUS officials struck a surprisingly conciliatory tone toward the Florida legislation, even though the organization's towing captains have been compared to criminals. It's only surprising until you think about it, however. The reality is that BoatUS is severely conflicted.

That's because BoatUS is three things, representing all three sides of the towing debate. As a boater advocacy organization, BoatUS should side with the consumers and support more transparency. As a towing provider, it should protect the interests of its towing captains. And then there's the third factor.

Above all else BoatUS is an insurance company, and often it's the insurance company that pays salvage claims, as was the case with Eric Hull, the man you definitely don't want to piss off.

Stand-by for more news and views on this legislation.